By Jessica Easthope
For nearly two decades Barbes has been an intersection of music and culture in Brooklyn. The best nights were when it was shoulder to shoulder, now the bar’s once popular and vibrant live music space is empty.
“It’s been hard for a lot of small businesses. Small music venues in particular have been hit especially hard, because we don’t know when we’ll have music again,” said Olivier Conan, the owner of the venue.
Since the pandemic, Olivier has had to think outside the box. For the last month, the bar that’s hosted countless Grammy winners and big names like Norah Jones has become a wine shop.
“We have to reimagine, reinvent and find ways to survive which has been hard,” Olivier said.
The pandemic’s effect on small businesses has been devastating, in New York City nearly one-third of small businesses will never reopen their doors. Those that have made it this far, like Barbes, have had to adapt and do it quickly, before it’s too late.
“We were managing okay and now we’re barely surviving. I’m not getting paid, we have a very small staff,” said Olivier, who named the bar after an immigrant-rich neighborhood in his hometown of Paris, France.
Watching the business and creative space he built crumble before his eyes hasn’t been easy. But, for not being one of the nearly 70,000 businesses that will close forever, Olivier considers Barbes one of the lucky ones.
“We’ve managed to survive for nine months already which in itself is pretty amazing. I see so many empty stores and I have to say, we’ve had a lot of support from the community,” he said.
Selling wine has helped but is barely keeping the lights on in Barbes. The bar has lost more than 75 percent of its revenue. But what’s truly missing is the music — the soul of Barbes that’s been ripped out by the pandemic.
Olivier hopes that come spring there will be music again, because in Barbes the silence is loud.